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A Complete Guide to Fiber Optic Internet

The future of broadband is fiber optic Internet. It uses fiber-optic technology to reach the fastest speeds available today, as fast as 1000 Mbps (1Gpbs). We live in a world where broadband is essential. Powered by fiber optic technology, fiber Internet is blowing its competitors out of the water. In this guide, we will cover everything you need to know about fiber Internet, including how it works and the challenges associated with it.

How Fiber Optics Work

When we refer to “fiber” in this guide we are talking about fiber optic Internet, which is a form of fiber-optic communications. By sending a beam of light through fiber optic glass cables, we are able to transfer information through what is a truly fascinating process.

Optical Fibers

Fiber cables are made up of many smaller optical fibers. These fibers are extremely thin, to be specific they are less than a tenth as thick as a human hair. Though they are thin, they have a lot going on. Each optical fiber has two parts:

The Core: Usually made of glass, the core is the innermost part of the fiber, where the light passes through.

The Cladding: Usually made of a thicker layer of plastic or glass, the cladding is wrapped around the core.

These two parts work together to create a phenomenon called total internal reflection. Total internal reflection is how light is able to move down the fibers, without escaping. It is when the light hits the glass at an extremely shallow angle, less than 42 degrees, and reflects back again as if reflecting against a mirror. The cladding keeps the light in the core because the glass/plastic it is made of has a different optical density or lower refractive index. Both these terms refer to how the glass bends (refraction)and therefore slows down the light.

Light is transmitted down the fiber in LED or Laser pulses that travel extremely fast. These pulses carry binary data, which is a coding system that makes up everything we see on the Internet, even the words you are reading right now. Binary code is made up of bits, which are just ones and zeroes. These bits send messages in organized eight-part patterns, called bytes. It is easy to translate the bits of binary into light pulses. One pulse means one and no pulse means zero. These pulses can travel sixty miles before they experience any degradation. To transport data across thousands of miles these pulses go through optical amplifiers that boost their signal so that no data is lost.

The Last Mile

Once the pulses reach their destination, an optical network terminal (ONT) converts the light pulses into electrical Ethernet. This is how light becomes something you can use to actually connect your devices to the Internet. This conversion happens at the end of the Last Mile, which isn’t actually a mile at all, but a term for the last stretch of fiber that connects the consumer to the backbone of the Internet.

The backbone of the Internet is what makes it possible for people across the globe to connect via the web, and most of it is made of fiber optic cables. Fiber optic Internet may seem like brand new technology, but it has actually been around since the early days of the Internet. In 1988 fiber optic cables were laid under the ocean to connect the U.S. and Europe. They were the first submarine lines to be laid, and today they have expanded to crisscross the entirety of the ocean floor.

The backbone is the core of the Internet. The instant you connect to a website, no matter the device or the destination, multiple steps are being taken to bring you there, and every one of them is connected by the backbone.

Types of Last Mile Connections

There are several types of last mile fiber connections an Internet service provider (ISP) can install, each one varying in how pure your fiber optic Internet connection actually is. Each one is referred to as “Fiber to the X” or “FTTX”, with x representing where the optical fiber connection actually ends.

FTTP/FTTH/FTTB/FTTD: Fiber to the premise, home, business or desktop are the most direct fiber lines. With them, you are getting pure fiber straight to your residence, with no copper cables involved. These are also the most expensive fiber connections for the ISPs.

FTTB: With fiber to the building, the fiber line is distributed throughout the building by copper lines. This is a popular choice for apartment buildings, hotels, schools or buildings that provide Internet to several different businesses.

FTTC/FTTN/FTTS: Fiber to the cabinet/curb, neighborhood, or street are the most common fiber connections. Fiber is delivered to a street cabinet, around 1000ft from the farthest premise, and is then dispersed by copper cables. It is the most affordable fiber optic Internet connection for ISPs because they do not have to invest in costly infrastructure to the individual premises, and it can be re-distributed if/when new residence or businesses move in.

Fiber Competitors

Fiber’s biggest Internet competitors are DSL, Cable and Wireless Internet. DSL Internet is provided by copper phone lines that have been the norm for over a hundred years. Cable internet also uses copper, but unlike DSL it uses coaxial cables, which were originally used for cable TV services. Fixed Wireless Internet, like cell phone service, is provided through radio waves broadcasted from towers, and then sent over frequencies.

As with anything, there are pros and cons to fiber optics when compared to its competitors.

DSL Pros

Low Fiscal and Environmental Costs: DSL does the least amount of damage, both environmentally and economically. Copper cables can usually be found even in the most rural of areas because it was originally laid for telephone connections. The cables can be reutilized, so new building projects are not necessary. Fiber optic infrastructure or wireless towers can be expensive, and come at the added price of natural habitats, not to mention added Co2 emissions. On the other hand, fiber infrastructure doesn’t require electricity, which is very eco-friendly. Of all the competitors, cable produces the least data for the most electricity.

Availability: Again, copper cables have already been laid in most areas for telephone use so, as long as they are in reasonable condition, reusing them to create Internet service is fairly simple. At this time, fiber optic Internet isn’t available in many rural areas. However, bringing faster and more reliable Internet to rural America is becoming a growing priority for both municipalities and providers.

DSL Cons

Interference: Copper wires can cause serious damage if not properly installed and maintained. They can release electromagnetic currents that interfere with wires and severely damage a network. Fiber cables will neither emit electromagnetic waves nor be damaged by them. Because they are made from plastic and/or glass, they are not affected by harmful waves. Copper cables also conduct electricity, so they pose a fire risk if not properly installed and maintained. This fact also means they are more susceptible to lightning and can be very dangerous if they go down during a storm.

Attenuation: Attenuation, means the weakening or loss of a signal. Given distance signals sent over copper wires degrade much faster than fiber. After 320 ft. of cable, fiber loses only three percent of its signal, whereas DSL/Cable lose 94% at the same distance.

Symmetrical Speeds: Everyone uses the Internet in one of two ways, downloading and/or uploading. When you watch something on Netflix, you are downloading. When you upload a video to YouTube, you are uploading. Downloading and uploading are usually represented as different speeds.

Most casual users only have to worry about the downloading speed, but telecommuters, those dependent on telemedicine, and most businesses need higher uploading speeds as well. One of the many things that makes fiber optic Internet superior is that it provides symmetrical speeds, meaning its download and upload speeds match. DSL and other types of Internet, only offer asymmetrical speeds, where download speeds are faster than upload than upload speeds.

Cable Pros

Price: Cable Internet is one of the most affordable Internet options. Unfortunately, you get what you pay for, since their speeds aren’t as fast as wireless or fiber, and often include data caps.

Cable Cons

Sharing is Not Caring: Cable can reach download speeds of 100 Mbps (still only a tenth of fiber but more than DSL), but cable Internet is shared from a central node where the ISP meets the local coaxial network. This means anywhere between 100-2000 homes have to share a single node. Sharing like this often leads to low speeds during peak use hours. To manage this, companies have been throttling users Internet, meaning they slow down your bandwidth after you have used a certain amount. The idea behind this is to give everyone sharing the node an even amount of service, but can often be frustrating for consumers. Cable companies have also been known to put caps on how much data your household needs, and then charge you extra for additional data.

Fixed Wireless Pros

It’s Wireless: As a testament to its name, fixed wireless truly is wire free. Once a tower goes up, radio waves transmit a carrier’s signal across frequencies. This wireless means fewer materials are needed, bringing down the overall cost of purchasing, building, and maintaining. It also means no fallen cables resulting in loss of service.

Access: There are many areas so rural that providers can’t justify the expense to lay fiber, or build DSL to them. If you live up a mountain, have very few neighbors, or are so far off the beaten path your mail comes by carrier pigeon, Wireless maybe your only option. Usually, even the most rural areas will have some sort of tower near enough to gauge a signal.

Fixed Wireless Cons

Line of Sight: With fixed wireless, the biggest limitation is that the consumer’s antenna has to be within the line of sight of the provider’s wireless tower. If a line of sight can’t be established, like if you live in a hilly area, wireless won’t be an option for you.

Congestion: Fixed wireless has the potential to meet fiber optic Internet speeds, but circumstances prevent the radio waves from ever catching up to the photons. You already know that Wireless degrades with distance, bringing the speed down with it, but there is a greater issue at hand. As with a cable connection, fixed wireless users share bandwidth across their local network, so when many people are accessing the network at once, the speed slows. To put this in perspective, let’s say you are paying for a 100 Mbps network, but your share that network with all ten homes in your neighborhood. If everyone is on at once, you are getting 10 Mbps at best. Whereas if you are paying for a 100 Mbps network of fiber, that speed is just for your home alone.

The Importance of Broadband

Individual Benefits

Entertainment and Connectivity: We have all become used to having the world at our fingertips. We may browse recipes, check the latest stock information, video chat, stream a movie, download music, or play interactive online games. With fiber optic Internet, ISPs are able to provide enough bandwidth to do all of those things at once, without having to sacrifice service quality.

Smart Homes and Security: Smart Home technology is one of the Internet of Things (IOT) fastest growing markets. Connect every aspect of your home so it runs seamlessly from your smart device. You can also monitor and protect your home remotely using Smart Home Security.

Telecommuting: Fast access to the Internet makes it possible for professionals to telecommute. Working remotely allows people to live wherever they want, without having to sacrifice career opportunities. Further, symmetrical fiber speeds make uploading content to/for work just as easy as it would be sitting in the office.

Distance Learning: Educational and enrichment opportunities for every age group are quickly becoming the norm at colleges, adult education programs, and even as virtual elementary schools emerge. Symmetrical speeds, once again, are a key part of this process. They allow students to quickly upload their assignments from home.

K-12 Education: Aside from the obvious access to information for studying, children and their parents can always be engaged in the educational process through educational web portals. These portals provide an interface to communicate with teachers and administrators, real-time access to assignments and grades, and numerous educational resources.

Access to Health Care: Telemedicine has made advances that allow for the digital transfer of information that once required traditional telephone technology. Today, high-speed fiber connections allow health care professionals to evaluate, diagnose, and treat patients in remote locations using telecommunications technology. Fiber optic Internet provides seamless video connections, so patients in remote locations can access medical experts quickly and efficiently without having to travel.

Independent Living for the Aging or Disabled: Aging in place and independent living are quickly becoming more important to us as the population ages. The most affordable home automation products are cloud-based and Internet-dependent. A wide array of products from voice-activated devices to panic alarms can have a profound impact on quality of life for senior citizens, the disabled, and the people who care for them.

Societal Benefits

E-Government & Civic Participation: What makes government work as it should is transparency and public engagement. Access to reliable, high-speed Internet allows live streaming of municipal, state and federal proceedings – either in real time or more importantly on demand. Government websites and social media provide a continuous stream of information to the public as well as forums for public participation. Citizens can pay taxes online, register vehicles, procure hunting, fishing, and pet licenses, and with the click of a button, communicate via email with elected officials and staff. Many government entities have employed a messaging system that allows citizens to use any smart device to alert officials about everything from dangerous potholes to emergency situations they might witness.

Public Safety: Chapter 16 on The National Broadband Plan addresses the importance of broadband to public safety. The plan suggests that:

“Broadband can help public safety personnel prevent emergencies and respond swiftly when they occur. Broadband can also provide the public with new ways of calling for help and receiving emergency information.”

The plan lists 4 major benefits of the broadband internet:

  • Allow first-responders anywhere in the nation to send and receive critical voice, video, and data to save lives, reduce injuries and prevent acts of crime and terror
  • Ensure all Americans can access emergency services quickly and send and receive vital information, regardless of how it is transmitted
  • Revolutionize the way Americans are notified about emergencies and disasters so they receive information vital to their safety
  • Reduce threats to e-commerce and other Internet-based applications by ensuring the security of the nation’s broadband networks

Energy and Environment: Transportation and power generation are 2 of the biggest impacts on global warming. Both Smart Grid technology for electricity generation and distribution and metering, and improved transportation management can develop efficiencies that will greatly reduce emissions and ultimately the carbon footprint. Hi-speed fiber internet connectivity is integral in both cases.

Libraries: Particularly during economic downturns, libraries become a haven for the public, providing computers and internet access, books and movies for inexpensive entertainment, and assistance with online job searching. Regardless of the economic climate, libraries are automated to the point that users can download digital media from home, reserve and renew books online, and access a myriad of web-based enrichment and educational tools.

Economic Growth & Quality Jobs: Data indicates that hi-speed or broadband internet will improve the economic climate. Not surprisingly, according to some studies, the greatest positive economic impact is likely to be realized in rural underserved communities. This assertion is quite logical when one considers population density, income and education demographics, and the current economy in rural America. Rural America, simply put, has the most room for economic growth.

Municipal Broadband

Across the country, municipalities are working on building reliable broadband in their area so their communities can be competitive in the modern economy. Whether they are looking to the FCC for help or turning to their local ISPs for partnerships, municipalities are still taking on an extremely costly and complicated project. With thousands, if not millions of dollars being invested, municipalities need to consider the longevity of the Internet medium they choose.

It is clear to everyone that fiber optic Internet is the future of broadband but building fiber infrastructure isn’t a simple process. There is a reason that only 25% of the country has available fiber. It isn’t because ISPs and municipalities are not interested, but because there are immense hurdles involved in these projects.

Building Broadband

Whether you are an ISP, a municipality, when it comes to building fiber infrastructure there are challenges, and concerns. Here are five to be sure to consider:

How to build

There are two ways to build fiber infrastructure, and each come with their own challenges to consider:

Aerial building: Fiber to the pole is complicated. It is a six to eight-month process, and with so many variables, there is no way to know the real long-term cost. An ISP with existing copper infrastructure on poles is going to have the easiest time putting up new aerial fiber, but they are still looking at the costly price of personnel, installation, and upkeep. Leasing existing poles really has an immeasurable cost, because, in theory, you will be paying for the lease for years and years to come. Not to mention, you are still looking at the cost of personnel, installation, and upkeep.

Building new poles is not just an issue of cost, which is very high, but geography and local policy. You may have all the funds in the world to build fiber poles, but you can’t build a pole in the middle of a lake or on the edge of a cliff. Once you find that perfect spot, local regulation is going to determine whether or not you can actually build it there. Even municipalities working to install community networks have to consider existing utility infrastructure when putting up new poles. The upside of installing or owning poles is that they can be leased out in the future.

Underground: This a broad term, since there are several different ways to bury fiber, it can be…

  • Buried in a new or existing conduit.
  • Plowed in using special machinery.
  • Put in using directional boring.
  • Buried directly in a trench/micro-trench.
  • Blown into already buried ducts.
  • Buried underwater.

No matter which technique is chosen there are going to be some recurring challenges and concerns. The most important aspect of burying fiber cable is that the ISP/municipality plans where they are digging since so many different things end up buried underground. Not checking can be life-threatening if someone ends up accidentally digging up anything with high voltage.

Equipment cost is another consideration. Special machinery has to be used to pull up existing conduit, and plow, trench or bore fiber into the ground. Submarine trenching can be an especially costly, but necessary, project to undertake. The last thing to consider is how much of a commotion digging is actually going to cause. A municipality planning on providing new infrastructure to a whole town is more than likely going to have to go right through the center of town. That means pulling up existing infrastructure, like roads and sidewalks, then inevitably having to repair them. Not only is this expensive, but it also leads to road closures that ultimately annoy everyone in the community.


No matter how you cut it, bury it, or string it up fiber projects involve a lot of manpower. These are not jobs just anyone can do. Parts of the process can be contracted, such as the trenching, but the majority involves full-time experience employees.

Licensed professionals will have to be hired to run the heavy machinery. Planning infrastructure requires experienced engineers to map out where and how networks will be built. Wiring and maintaining the network means hiring both engineers and electricians full time to be in the central office, on a pole, or in someone’s home. Not to mention, if the personnel doesn’t already have experience working with fiber the company and/or municipality has to spend time and money training them.

When a company doesn’t have enough of the right people for the job they have to budget out hiring a new person vs. contracting that position out. It can sometimes end up being more trouble than it is worth, resulting in that project being put aside for another. One of the reasons it is often easier for municipalities to work in partnership with ISPs to build fiber infrastructure is because of the experienced and expensive personnel needed.

Return on Investment

This is a challenge for any business venture that involves large expensive projects. Building fiber involves a very large upfront cost. If you are an ISP, in theory, that cost will be paid back over time by the customer’s monthly fee. Unfortunately, it takes years for the company to see a return on investment.

A municipality building fiber is looking return on investment is going to be much different, because this investment is about community growth and prosperity, not a fiscal profit. The return on investment a municipality looks for is going to depend on what their broadband goals were. Some common returns on investment are:

  • A thriving business district.
  • New businesses opening in the town.
  • A younger population moving in.
  • More families setting down roots in the community.

Finance and Regulation

Broadband infrastructure is a hot-button issue in government right now. From Washington to your local state house politicians are trying to decide the best way to connect us all. Whatever changes the government makes, now or in the future, have to be carefully considered by anyone building fiber infrastructure.

One way government is helping build better broadband is by providing grant money to ISPs and municipalities. This is great for ISPs because it balances out the high cost of building fiber in rural areas. When an ISP builds new infrastructure in one specific rural area, they can delegate other funds to connect homes they pass along the way. This way an ISP can connect more homes.

For municipalities to qualify for these grants that have to fit certain criteria. Criteria vary from state to state, as does the definition of broadband. When we talk about “defining broadband” we don’t mean a dictionary definition.

Planning for the Future

When it comes to building fiber, whether it is an ISP or a municipality, building for the future is an important consideration. It is clear that the Internet of Things is growing and expanding, with new ways to connect our lives every day. The more things we connect the Internet the faster speeds we need to power them. That is why so many ISPs and municipalities are choosing to build future-proof fiber infrastructure now, versus outdated copper that will only need to be replaced in 10-20 years. More than that though, they have to build for changes in population and economic landscape.

Building for the future often means building more fiber all at once, versus coming back in late to install more. Yes, building fiber optic Internet is expensive, but those large expenses have more to do with the infrastructure than the fiber itself. The cost of doubling strands of fiber can be a difference of mere cents, whereas the cost of changing infrastructure in the future can be between thousands, if not millions, of dollars. Dark fiber, optical fibers that are part of a fiber cable but are not currently being used, can be a great asset to an ISP or municipality. Dark fiber can be sold or leased out in the future, helping to speed up the investment return for ISPs or provide extra money to a municipality.

Fiber and ISPs

Despite the concerns involved, many ISPs have dedicated themselves to fiber optic Internet deployment. Some ISPs have even committed to only building fiber infrastructure going forward, and are actively working to replace existing copper.

Re: A Complete Guide to Fiber Optic Internet

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